This week marks three decades since I finally entered the ’80s technologically, buying my first portable radio/cassette player with headphones. It wasn’t the Sony Walkman — I’d get my first one of those a year later. No, it was a Taiwan-made knockoff that I got at Crazy Eddie’s on 46th and Fifth in Manhattan, on sale for $22, that was my jump into the era of the Walkman. After a year and a half of carrying around a plug-in radio, playing with records on cheap $15 turntables (that cost $130 and much more in 2016), contemplating boom boxes, and having no control over what music I listened to outside of laundromat runs and 616, I found a new way to escape.
As I wrote in my memoir, this new toy was
my passport to another world, a world where I could make anything happen and no one could hurt me. Taking the Subway to go to The Wiz or Crazy Eddie’s or Tower Records was as much a part of mine and Darren’s Saturday ritual as our tracking down of Jimme. I no longer had to wait for WPLJ or Z-100 or WBLS to play the music I wanted to hear. I could buy a cassette tape for as little as six dollars. In the month after I’d bought my Walkman I’d gone out and bought more than twenty tapes. Whitney Houston, Simple Minds, Phil Collins, Sting, The Police, Mr. Mister, Mike + The Mechanics, Tears for Fears, even Sade. All were welcome who could contribute to my all-consuming effort at conquering my courses.
I was tough on my first Walkman, though. I must’ve dropped it a dozen times in two months, as it barely made it to Memorial Day ’86. My second one was a $42 Panasonic, which I bought with my Technisort earnings, and it lasted from July 4th until the end of October. I bought a decent Aiwa knockoff of the Sony Walkman in December, and that one made it to April ’87. before I finally found the $60 I needed for my Sony Walkman the month before high school graduation.
In a span of a year, I would accumulate more than seventy tapes, covering everything from pop and hard rock to rap and R&B, new age and jazz. As anyone who knew me in the spring of ’87 could attest, I carried my tapes with me in my book bag to have at the ready, the same way in which I had toted my Bible everywhere when I became a Christian three years earlier.
I walked everywhere in the Upper Bronx and Southern Westchester County for nearly three and a half years before I bought a Walkman of any kind. But in that window between March ’86 and my college move to Pittsburgh seventeen months later, my walks became much more frequently and much more eventful. I was walking to escape, to find mental space away from the gang of under-five-year-olds that ruled the too-small, two-bedroom space of pain in which I had grown up. I walked to figure out who I was and who I wasn’t, to be angry at my family, at the world, and at myself. I walked to find meaning in a chaotic life and world. I walked because I could wear myself out with warp speed, spin moves and high-falsetto highs, with questions and emotions and sometimes even, some answers, before coming back to 616 and grabbing some sleep. I must’ve have gone on 100 or 150 walks of five miles or more in that year and a half before college.
That doesn’t even count my more frequent forays into the city, not to do anything or be anything. I wasn’t working for my father anymore, and after he repeatedly called me a “Faggat” in August ’86 and tried to set me up with a prostitute in December ’86, I hardly went to see him at all until the last few weeks before leaving for Pitt. I didn’t even take Darren down to Midtown Manhattan, the Upper West Side, Harlem or Flatbush with me. That’s what I did with the spare hours I started stealing from my Mom on weekends during that year. I’d go down to the city, maybe buy a few tapes at Tower Records on 66th and Broadway (usually not, since most of my tapes came via Terra Haute, Indiana). Sometimes if I had a few dollars, I’d go to MOMA or Radio City or some other place and go into escape/observation mode there. Mostly, I walked and people watched for an hour or so, and then take the long way home between the 2 train, 241st Street and the heart of Mount Vernon.
All the while, my music was on, often at full blast. It was a coping strategy, a pain and stress reliever, my sword and my shield. It took my Phyllis obsession and my freshman year at the University of Pittsburgh to break the link between music, Walkman, and the need to escape. It took the pain of rejection, removal from an anti-Donald environment, and a bout of homelessness to make music about enjoyment and education. When that happened, sometime in ’88, I knew I couldn’t escape anymore.